‘Golden Hour’ turns to tragedy in Musgraves’ ‘star-crossed’

Kacey Musgraves wears teardrop makeup and stares up into glow light.
Musgraves’ fourth studio album presents an emotionally charged exploration of triumph and vulnerability. (Photo courtesy of Universal Music Group)

In her fourth studio album, singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves tracks the dramatic progression of emotions following her recent divorce from fellow country musician Ruston Kelly. 

Released Sept. 10, the album arrived alongside a film of the same name, featuring appearances by Eugene Levy, Princess Nokia, Victoria Pedretti and more. 

Entitled “star-crossed,” the album is a thematic reversal to the lovestruck musings of Musgraves’ previous album “Golden Hour,” which heralded the joyousness of falling in love. The glimmering and effervescent “Golden Hour” is speared and disemboweled by “star-crossed,” which Musgraves called “a modern tragedy.” 

The albums contrast one another narratively and visually. The “star-crossed” aesthetic centers around bedazzled medieval armor and piercing, bright colors, whereas “Golden Hour” was defined by its warm tones and flapping butterflies.

As opposite as marriage and divorce may be, there is a definite sonic familiarity between the albums. A mix of upbeat synth-pop and slower acoustics, “star-crossed” confirms that, from bride to divorcee, Musgraves remains herself. 

The changes of pace and style from song to song contribute to the story that the album tells: the chaotic tumult of emotions that emerge, in no particular order, post-breakup. “star-crossed” finds its relatability within its scattered feeling, as Musgraves pinballs between anger, nostalgia, regret and hope.

All together, the songs fling listeners back and forth between feelings of triumph and vulnerability — an emotional progression all too similar to coming out of a relationship.

The first and titular track of the album, “star-crossed,” instantly establishes the album’s goal of telling a dramatic tale of heartbreak and recovery. Stacked vocal harmonies, a haunting Latin guitar progression and angelic harp accompany Musgraves’ first lyrics, “Let me set the scene/Two lovers ripped right at the seams.” 

The songs that follow capture every moment and every feeling that Musgraves experienced following that severance from a lover. 

Musgraves addresses the mixed depiction of emotions directly in “justified,” which claims her right to heal in her own way. “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” Musgraves sings. “If I cry just a little and then laugh in the middle/(…)/Then I’m more than just a little justified.” 

The broad array of feelings defended in “justified” is supported visually in the “star-crossed” film, where jump cuts are used to show Musgraves in varying states of well-being while at the wheel of a car. Musgraves is at one moment dead-eyed and tear-streaked, then jubilant and carefree the next.

The fun of the album comes from Musgraves’ moments of triumph. In “cherry blossom,” Musgraves compares herself to a beautiful but short-lived flower — gorgeous while she’s there, but gone all too soon. “I’m your cherry blossom, baby,” says Musgraves. “Don’t let me blow away.” 

A similar energy is found in “breadwinner,” where Musgraves seems to have conquered the divorce by realizing the faults of her ex-lover. “He wants your shimmer to make him feel bigger/Until he starts feeling insecure,” sings Musgraves. 

The fun, energetic Murgraves then gives way to a more solemn one, as triumph fades to vulnerability. In “hookup scene,” there is an underlying sense of regret surrounding the relationship’s end. “If you’ve got someone to love/And you’ve almost given up/Hold on tight despite the way they make you mad/‘Cause you might not even know that you don’t have it so bad.”

The song “good wife” may best capture the conflicting feelings of relief and sadness associated with the end of a relationship. A cheeky satirization of what makes a “good wife” gives way mid-song to a painful revelation that Musgraves, though acknowledging the harmfulness of gender stereotypes, wishes she could have made the love last. 

“God help me be a good wife,” sings Musgraves, through autotune, “‘Cause he needs me.” In the film, this song is played over visuals of brides-in-training, adorned in maid outfits and rigidly practicing their ironing and table-setting skills. Clearly a satirization, the song then breaks down into its vulnerable moment with Musgraves’ wistful declaration: “I don’t want to be alone.” 

Musgraves advertised the album as being “told in three acts,” and it’s the third act that rescues the album from ending as a mournful breakup tale. “keep looking up” “what doesn’t kill me” and “there is a light” all place Musgraves on an upward-looking trajectory, confident in her value and hopeful that good things await her beyond this era of a love that didn’t last.

Some listeners have felt underwhelmed by the album, claiming that what Musgraves marketed as a complex, drama-filled tragedy turned out to be a tame and tidy recounting of a standard breakup. 

It may not be “Romeo and Juliet,” but the fate of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers is notoriously aggravating anyway. With Musgraves’ tale, we end on an uplifting note of the triumphs that await her in the future, which hopefully we’ll be dancing to someday. I’d take Musgraves over Montague any day, theatrical advertising included.